matt's Reviews > Aesthetics and Politics: Debates between Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno

Aesthetics and Politics by Ernst Bloch
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Apr 19, 09

bookshelves: red-menace, wisdom-philosophical-investigatons, politik, historyonics-world, re-readers
Read in April, 2009


This is my third time actually going through this text. I borrowed it on curiosity from a friend of mine and tried to give it a good going-over. I think i understood what I was reading well enough but the aracana and the historical jargon was a little distancing. I find a lot of marxist theory can be like that, frustratingly so.

I'd like to learn it more, be more conversant in it, my sympathies are definitely on that side of the spectrum- at least, in the realm of politics and history. I'm not so very certain there is a non-mystical, hermetically sealed way to read history without bumping into huge Hegelian discourses about the World Spirit and Weltanschaung and what-you-will. I find that interesting material, certainly, but thinking along those catergories is better as a solitary discipline than a broadening appraisal. Otherwise it's too Germanic, too murky, too heavy on the specialization to be used effectively and pragmatically. Thus to Marx, to materialism. I like the way it levels the playing field of discourses, too, in that it unearths the constructions which are (as someone said of Chaucer's irony) 'too large to be seen.' I like the empirical understanding of the making, working, fashioning, selling dialectic going on all the time. It's fruitful and penetrative when dealing with large structures and mainstream dialogue: yeah, ok, big shot but who's the guy in the basement shoveling coal into your furnace? Cuts out a lot of the bullshit about market opportunities, transitional labor forces, neo-democracy, whatever. Nuts and bolts, people.

wWhen it comes to aesthetic theory, though, the nuts and bolts appraoch begins to falter. Let's not politicize our art and especially our artists- underlined even more so when it comes to doing it as it were from the outside. If one decides a certain kind of literature or literary style is more or less politically expedient that's of course one's right as a reader. but all too often I think it's about putting shoes on a horse. Ideology might empower and engage an artist, certainly, but I think by its very nature art contradicts ideological pretenses by being an aspect of the human consciousness, the human presence.

We are too frisky, as beings, for all that. It's vey hard to accurately pin down someone within a matrix, assuming that their experience on this planet is in any level sufficiently realized and vivid. A dot moving on a horizon has a universe within it, yet it would be mighty hard to preceive that universe in all its variety and depth unless it begins to speak or be confronted by...art! Art is or should be our way of creating an added provocation to our everyday life. It's an enhancer, an enricher, the way that color on a wall changes the way you percieve the wall itself. So when we start to theorize about the arts it's really no more than art appreiciation- non gustibus debutantum est, naturally, which is why it's so much fun to argue about. But there's no really totalizing theory of art, or can be, so long as people's consciousness is consistently at play. New forms emerge, they can't help but do so. Theory is made to be broken. Who would want a world where art is made to suit theoretical priorities? Well....

The dialogue here is very intense, complex, and cultivated. We've got an assembly of heavyweights here- I think it might be fair to say that between them you've got at least a large chunk of the nucelus of 20th Century intellectual thought. The arguements come fast and quick, build and finish. The first time through, you start to feel that the person who has just finished speaking has pretty much nailed it outright- they have taken up all the different critiques into their statement, developed the thesis sufficiently enough that it nails home the issue at hand for all time. Then- the next one comes through and lo and behold Lukacs has told Bloch precisely where to stick it. THen Adorno cleans Lukacs' reductive, pompous, partisan smirk right off his face. Benjamin makes luminous sense in his own right, of course, but doesn't go for the kill- as if he ever did.

The meat of it for me at least is in one of the buttressing 'Presentations'- where the unnamed editors describe the upcoming debate for the reader, and say essentially that Brecht is going to outline a position with a lot of experiential value but one that also happens to be theoretically weak. Adorno (I think it's him, at any rate) has a stronger theoretical stance, but doesn't have as much application to match it up. Riiiight.

Great, well you know if you're going to come up with theories about artistic engagement with the political sphere, how we can enact positive changes in the body politic through the mass accessibility of our art, well then maybe the insights of the ACTUAL ARTIST in the bunch might be a little more pressing than those of partisans or theoreticians. Lukacs, Adorno, Benjamin never wrote anything creative that I've ever heard about. Brecht's literally putting on plays for the workers in the flesh and gauging their reactions.

Not to discount the importance of theory- without an intellectual framework there is a lack of justification for things. Plus it inspires people, pushes the discourse further, it changes language, thought, etc. OK sure. Theory is important. But I have to take issue with the idea that artists who are engaged in the social arena along clearly expresed political sympathies might have something more valuable to say than what theory might dictate on a blackboard.

Brecht takes a sarcastic ease in addressing the challenges of the other theorists, explaining at point how for him as reader and as a writer it isn't so much important how you get there as an artist, or what you want to depict- people do it in different ways, that's all. Workers don't give a shit if the play they see is culturally within the field of their discourse as much as if it moves them, speaks to them, penetrates into their inner world. If politics comes back out of the other side, so much the better, but let's not put the theoretical cart before the horse by condemming things people do who are in an entirely different arena. Everyone's a critic, and everyone should be allowed to be, but not all criticism is created equal.
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